If Sunday’s lobstermen rally in Stonington was any indication, what should be a scientific discussion about the protection of North Atlantic right whales could easily be ensnared in politics. That’s risky for Maine and for its roughly billion dollar lobster industry.
The state’s recent decision to buck the federal government, and to pursue its own assessment of the risk to right whales from lobster trap lines in the water, is warranted. Science, not politics, needs to guide this effort.
While the danger that fishing gear generally poses to these already endangered whales is unmistakable, the existing monitoring and data fails to provide any clarity as to the extent that Maine’s lobster fishery is responsible for right whale entanglements. It certainly does not prove that the problem falls on the shoulders of the Maine lobster industry. So, it’s hard to justify the 50 percent line reduction that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling for.
But that incomplete data also does not amount to an exoneration or preclude Maine from additional action. And the heightened rhetoric on display Sunday has us concerned that what should be an ongoing conversation with the federal government will quickly devolve into an unproductive fight.
The broad bipartisan agreement — from Maine’s current governor, former governor and entire federal delegation — that the federal proposal is wrong might otherwise be cause for celebration. Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage on the same side of an issue? It must be good policy, right? This case, however, merits caution.
Sunday’s rally drew a wide range of politicians, from as far as Aroostook County. Maine Senate President Troy Jackson said he drove all the way down from Allagash to speak at the event.
“I didn’t see a right whale on my way down,” Jackson joked. The line — good for a chuckle from the crowd — is ultimately unhelpful, and belies a less-than-serious approach to whale conservation. That was not the only telling quip on Sunday.
Lining up behind the lobstermen is a political no-brainer. This is a hardworking and iconic Maine industry that provides thousands of jobs in the state. But by rushing to show such strong solidarity with the fishermen, Maine politicians run the risk of counterproductive escalation with the federal government on an already-contentious issue.
We’ve seen on the West Coast how legal pressure from environmental groups can close entire fisheries early, as it did for California crab this year. That does not mean Maine should roll over on the proposed federal regulations without science demonstrating that new regulations would be commensurate with the actual risk to whales posed by trap lines in Maine waters. But it does require pragmatic, continued cooperation with other stakeholders, even if it feels like Maine has been down this road before.
Maine lobstermen have already made gear adjustments over the past 20-plus years to help protect these whales. Some clearly are frustrated at the prospect of doing more.
“It’s time to just say, ‘No, you’re wrong, and we can’t do it anymore,’” one lobsterman said Sunday about working with the federal government. “We’ve done everything we were asked, and we’re doing fine. We just need to be left alone.”
The frustration is real. So is the prospect of heavy-handed federal action or a ruling from the courts that forces fishery restriction or even closure. Blaming other fisheries and ship strikes, and insisting insisting that right whales are “just not in here,” as one longtime lobsterman said Sunday, oversimplifies the undoubtedly incomplete right whale data.
NOAA data on right whale mortality or significant injury from 2010 to 2018 fails to identify the origin of gear in roughly 80 percent of the entanglement. So while the Maine Department of Marine Resources says that none of those enganglements involved Maine lobster gear, there’s a huge unknown here.
A 50 percent reduction in Maine lobster lines may be too high, but practically speaking, Maine’s counter-offer cannot be zero.
“We all want to protect the right whale,” Mills said Sunday. “We want to save the right whale, but we want to do it the right way, protecting the safety of Maine’s fishermen and the fishermen community, protecting the economy of coastal Maine and all of Maine.”
That is the message Maine should continue to bring to the table in discussion with NOAA and other stakeholders. The pushback needs to stay focused on the gaps in the science. It cannot be an inflexible argument that amounts to, “leave us alone. We’re not the problem.” That could lead to even bigger problems down the line.